Sunday, 19 October 2014

My Sister Eileen - Ruth McKenney

There aren't enough unashamedly lovely books around. Too many modern books (it seems) feel they have to be either trivial or miserable, as though the only way to be literary was to be grim. There is a market for uplifting books, but these tend to be insultingly light reads (pastel-coloured romances) or forgettable books you buy from the pile by the till. Comedy, meanwhile, is apparently represented by arch or melancholic writers whose novels strike me as either entirely unamusing (I'm looking at you, Howard Jacobson) or tragedy decorated with jokes.

This is a broadbrush and uninformed portrait of modern literature, of course, but my sense is that we are experiencing a good decade for literary and experimental fiction with its serious face on, but missing out on well written joie de vivre. The exception that comes to mind might be David Sedaris' non-fiction, which is very funny, but even this is decidedly melancholic.

So, what am I suggesting as an antidote? It's every bit as lovely as Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Herbert Jenkins' Patricia Brent, Spinster - it's Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen (1938). You might have guessed that from the title of this blog post.

I bought it a little while ago, after seeing it fleetingly mentioned in a review of Joanna Rakoff's excellent My Salinger Year, and I was excited when a beautiful copy arrived. Still, it felt like an indulgence to be saved, and I didn't dive straight in. My recent holiday felt like a very good opportunity to treat myself. As I expected, it's lovely and funny and good.

It's non-fiction - of the elaborated and exaggerated variety, I imagine - and is mostly about Ruth and Eileen's childhood, although there are also some chapters devoted to their time living in an extremely dingy New York basement (and it is this section, I believe, that is used in the film version - which I have bought but not yet watched).

Their childhood is certainly played for laughs - it is very amusing. I wasn't especially sold on the first chapter, which is about crying at the cinema (and the sisters' demand that a story should be entirely tragic, or it barely counted as a story at all). But from the second chapter onwards I was completely sold. The second chapter ('Hun-gah') details the sisters' attempts at amateur performances.

Eileen's only 'bit' was playing a 1920s song called 'Chloe' (Eileen is 'absolutely tone-deaf and has never been able to carry a tune, even the simplest one, in her whole life. She solved the difficulty by simply pounding so hard in the bass that she drowned herself out.') The infant Ruth, on the other hand, had a foray into acting - via an experimental drama teacher who allotted her the part of 'Hunger' (which, incidentally, was also her only line - to be repeated). There is a wonderful climax in a scene where the sisters have been asked to amalgamate their performances into one for their assembled relatives:

Eileen played and sang first. Just as the final notes of her bass monotone chant, "I GOT-TUH go wheah yew ARE," and the final rumble of the piano died away, I burst dramatically through the door, shouting "Hun-gah! Hun-gah!" and shaking my matted and snarled locks at my assembled relatives. My grandmother Farrel, who always takes everything seriously, let out a piercing scream.

Glorious.  And so the tales go on. We hear how Ruth was almost drowned by a Red Cross Lifesaving Examiner, how the sisters' father was obsessed with experimental washing machines, how they enlivened a camp bird-watching, etc. When they move to New York, these adventures turn to the complexities of a basement window that drunks would yell through, a cheating landlord, and (the story that inspires the cover), the time when Ruth - then a reporter - was followed for a day by the Brazilian Navy. It's so wonderfully silly and delightfully told. If it were not true (or at least based in truth) it might be criticised for being all over the place - but truth is not neatly arranged in logical or probable order, of course.

The Eileen of the title, incidentally, has another claim to notoriety - she married Nathanael West, and also died in the car crash that ended his life. This was actually two years after My Sister Eileen was published, so naturally it is not mentioned - but it lends a certain poignancy to the collection (and may influence the two sequels - one of which I now have, the other of which seems ungettable in the UK).

That moment of pathos aside, I think any lover of the Provincial Lady et al would also delight in this book - I certainly did, and was very glad to have found it.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm off for part of the weekend - to visit Jane Austen's house, no less - and so still haven't caught up with answering comments yet. I will soon! But I shan't leave you empty-handed; here are a few bits and pieces to tide you over.

1.) I wrote about A.A. Milne for the OxfordWords blog, which I've been intending to do ever since I started working at OUP.

2.) Margaret Kennedy Reading Week was good fun, and I've bought a copy of her book The Outlaws on Parnassus: on the art of the novel as a result of it. Enjoy a full round-up over at Jane/Fleur's.

3.) It's actually been ages since I submitted my DPhil thesis (last October) was vivaed (in January) and had my corrections approved (May) - but I still haven't had my graduation (November). I have, though, finally got my thesis bound. One copy has been submitted to the Bodleian; another is here:

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

This Is The End by Stella Benson

A Shiny New Review from Shiny New Books - of an old book, now reprinted by Mike Walmer. I loved I Pose by Stella Benson (review here) and leapt at the chance of reading her next book, This Is The End. Even though I kept singing 'Skyfall' every time I picked it up...

Here's the beginning of my review:

One of the more unusual novelists being reprinted at the moment is Stella Benson. Her work is issued by Michael Walmer, a one-man publishing house that is reprinting various neglected novelists in the order their novels were originally published. This Is The End is Benson’s second (from 1917), and comes immediately before the one that is probably most remembered now,Living Alone, about very curious witches.
I want to say that This Is The End is not supernatural, but any definite statement about a Benson novel feels like a trap waiting to happen; the reader never quite knows which genre they’re reading, or what sort of response is required. Except that laughter will always be involved somewhere.

Monday, 13 October 2014

My Name is Julia Ross

How do people feel about me writing film reviews? Is that something people would be in to? I tend just to post about the things I want to (witness: Song for a Sunday) and sometimes that turns into something unexpectedly popular (I never imagined anybody would want to read the Bake Off recaps, and now strangers - strangers plural, mind - come up to me at parties - party singular, actually - and tell me they like that.) But I guess the worlds of film and book review aren't miles apart, only I would consider myself something of an expert about books (if anything at all) and wouldn't about film.

Enough preamble. I'm going to write about My Name is Julia Ross, and we'll take it from there. By the by, a nice man called John writes a very book blog called Pretty Sinister Books which has regular film reviews, and he has written about My Name is Julia Ross here. But I actually came across the film when scrolling through the IMDB page for Dame May Whitty, seeing what else she had made.

My Name is Julia Ross is from 1945, and I watched it with my friend Andrea as part of the aptly-named Simon and Andrea's Film Club. The whole thing is available on YouTube (at the bottom of this post), although a DVD might still be available for all I know. It's based on a novel called The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, whom I've never heard of (have you?) and is about Julia Ross (Nina Foch) who takes on an appointment as a secretary, and is drugged and kidnapped. When she awakes, she is in a clifftop house, and people are calling her Marion Hughes, claiming she is the wife of Ralph Hughes. They have recently moved to the village, and all the villagers know that Ralph's wife has suffered a breakdown, and doesn't know what she's saying...

The rest of the film documents Julia Ross's attempts to escape from the house - attempts that are repeatedly foiled, of course - and the viewer slowly learns why Ralph and his mother (the mother being played by Dame May) have brought Julia there. In the background, back where Julia was living in penury, are the rather lacklustre romantic hero Dennis and the rather wonderfully snipey housemaid.

To the modern viewer - perhaps even to the 1940s viewer - the actual plot is something of a cliché. It is interesting to see a drama where nothing grimmer or more inventive is needed than repeated unsuccessful escape plans (notes thrown through gates, sneaking into the back of cars, etc.). I don't know enough about film history to know how unusual this scenario would have been at the time, but it really isn't all that important. Of course she isn't going to escape half an hour into the film. What does matter is how it's shot - and it's really striking.

There are quite a few things in My Name is Julia Ross that make me think of Hitchcock - not least the looming out over the clifftop; the bedroom window is right on the edge. The setting is so stunning, and dramatic, and the film-maker (dir. Joseph H. Lewis) puts this to the best possible use.

Nina Foch is a very likeable heroine, if a little over the top at times, but it is the eerie calmness of Dame May Whitty that makes the mystery at the heart of the film so tense - not so much 'what will happen?' but 'why has it happened?' It might have been a more psychologically complex film if we hadn't seen the drugging - if we hadn't known whether or not Julia was right; if she could, in fact, be Marion - but even without this element, it's rather gripping.

I love watching films from this period - unsurprisingly, really - and it's interesting to find a thriller to watch alongside the Brief Encounters and Mrs Minivers with which we're already familiar.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're all having a good weekend! Mine is disappearing all too quickly... and I've read only 20 pages of the book I was intending to finish. Oops.

Slightly different from usual this week, as I'm going to be entirely egotistical in this miscellany... these things are all me elsewhere.

1. I wrote about Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse over at Vulpes Libris.

2. I made a cake to celebrate the 400th Very Short Introduction book.

3. And I appeared in this Oxford Dictionaries video (see the post for answers):

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: The Final

Well, here we are! The final, and three wonderful bakers are left. It's been a vintage year for likeability, and Norm is basically already a national trejz. (Btw, remember those Mary B Janus mask images I requested be turned into a GIF? Two of you lovely people obliged - and the BBC totally nabbed the idea!) In case you haven't seen the episode yet, I shan't reveal the winner until the end...

Mel and Sue end the series with a high, being - inexplicably - in a rowing boat.

This makes me proud to be British.

We get a hasty recap of the series to date, and it seems extraordinary that it has featured on Newsnight and every newspaper cover across Britain. And then we segue across to the garden, which is now filled with children and loved ones moving about in slow motion.

These steps prove, once again, that they are not up to the job of providing climactic shots. There is a wisp of undergrowth, for old times' sake.

The tent feels extremely empty. It's been a few moments since we had a recap of the series to date, so Mel and Sue launch into another one, interspersed with the finalists saying nice, vague things about each other. The most unfortunate of these is Nancy saying "The brief this week is bold, in your face - and that is Luis."

It's ok, Luis, she said BOLD. With an 'o'.
(Simon... people in glass houses...)

The final episode means the final instalment of Blazer Watch (Bill Oddie is in talks to present this segment next year). Mary has gone full-on Cath Kidston, while the other three are recycling blazers from earlier in the series - grey, pink, and nothing, respectively.

And they're forbidden from using the same hand postures as each other.

The final signature challenge is Viennoiserie - "croissanty things" to the rest of us - and all three bakers talk about how strange it is that this is the end. They have different ways of dealing with this. Nancy goes for "pretending they're all behind me" (healthy), while Richard vows "never to do a signature again", which is bad news for his autograph-hunting fans.

Luis is making - gloriously - a pain au... white chocolate, which makes me warm to him, as my French is equally hopeless. It's a bit late in the day to be revealing those flaws that make viewers love you most, but better late than never. He keeps his food mixer going the entire time he's talking to Paul and Mary. He's keeping it cajz.

Our Nance, meanwhile, confides that she is using the mixer because she hasn't got the strength any more, "then I just finish them off to make it look like I did it all them look smooth". She wants an extra half an hour to make up for not having the males' muscles. Where are Kate and her guns when you need them?

Kate could do this in half the time of the mixer.

Paul wanders up to Nance and announces "I'M YOUR MALE JUDGE". He's cottoned onto one joke during the series, and he's not going to let it die. Not for him, the manipulation of humour into fresh and exciting new incarnations; as long as he can bellow the same two words over and over again, he'll keep bellowin'. Nancy ignores him, and says she's going to make an almond and raspberry croissant. It sounds delicious to me, but gets this Mary Berry Reaction Face:

"Almond AND raspberry? You... you maverick."

I love Nancy so much. She agrees with Paul's description of her other croissanty-thing as being a bit like a French tart in a Danish pastry (or something like that) and then raises her eyebrows as if to say "I haven't a clue what you're talking about". She's so relaxed. She is not intimidated by his steely blues. And he does seem to be getting his flirt on. It's disturbing.

Richard "speaks French a bit London". I love him too. He's making pain au lait, and Paul says it's too simple - dangerously simple. Er, I guess so?

Guess who's back?

So we meet again, proving drawer.

Luis gives an in-depth instruction for making the croissant pastry, as though anybody at home would ever bother doing that. Richard has cheated and is painting his butter on, which gets mumbles of consternation from Perch Table Corner. Apparently it could be "too bready" for Paul, who notoriously hates bread.

Dangerously spready.

Richard also says that he wants to "make sure my layers don't lose their layeriness". That, word fans, is not a new word in Oxford Dictionaries.

Luis: "It's not a good day to have a disaster." (True)
Richard: "I must admit, pain au chocolat aren't my speciality." (Good...)
Nancy: "You're trying to learn from me, aren't you?" (Paul is not a man who likes to be teased, and I love that she doesn't care at all.)

What a woman.

I've long doubted the honesty and capability of the proving drawer, and today I am proved right - as Richard has had to improvise a second drawer within it:

Prove this: you're useless

There's quite a lot of time to kill in this episode, so we get a montage of Nancy drinking water and Richard doing peculiar contortions, like he's limbering up for a limbo.

I bet he's thrilled that this got left in.

Luis puts his pastries in the oven saying "do or die". I didn't realise die was one of the options. This show just took a turn. And then he does a little body-pop, while Richard continues to create a showreel for his upcoming yoga DVD.

'Build Yourself Healthy'

In the back of the tent, Paul is practising his Blue Steel:

As the series goes on, Paul gets meaner and (presumably to offset it) Mary gets nicer - so we've got to the point where Paul complains about more or less everything, from the chalkiness of Luis' cream cheese to the edges of Richard's pain au lait, while Mary cries "You tried!", "You're a baker!", or "It's the final!" She often tells someone that she likes the flavour, if she's got nothing particularly nice to say, as though they were in any way responsible for the flavour of chocolate.

After the first critique, it's not looking good for our Richard.

Mel's intro to the Technical Challenge incorporates the long-awaited mash-up of Jane Austen and The Only Way is Essex ("on it like a Jane Austen bonnet"), and Mary announces that "it's a really nice one... good luck!" Fiendish.

It is a nice one - I like that it goes back to basics, and they're making 12 mini Victoria sandwiches, 12 mini scones, and 12 mini tarte aux citrons. All those 'minis' make me think of Bridget Jones' mum, but it's good to get them to do something that people might actually want to make at home - and after last week's terrible technical challenge, it's a good'un. But... all that in two hours. Eek.

The instructions apparently just say 'make these, innit', but the uniformity in shape and size across everyone's results, up to being judged on whether or not the tarts have 'citron' scrawled across them, rather belies this statement. As does the concentration with which Nancy is staring at her sheet. In fact... surely that's more than one sheet?

I feel betrayed.

Mary says they want "sheer perfection; that's all". Paul says they're after 'bare basics', but his accent makes it sound like 'Burr basics' - c'mon, Richard Burr, you can do it!

Nancy "I MAKE LOADS OF JAM" Birtwhistle is in her element. Yes, I know their surnames, what of it?

The only problem with this challenge, as a viewer, is that we have to sit through Mel, Sue, and the bakers earnestly telling us how to make a Vickie sponge and shortcrust pastry, which is hardly new information. Although I said that in the office today, and half of them said they didn't know how to make a sponge cake. The youth of today. (Yes, somehow I am one of the oldest in the office.)

The biggest crisis is Richard putting too many eggs in his scone mix, but it is quickly rectified. Part of me longs for people from previous series, like Rob (who'd drop absolutely everything on the floor at least twice) or John (who'd compare the whole situation to platitudes with the complexity of Dolly Parton lyrics). These guys are pretty calm about the whole thing.

Oh, but wait. It's the tarts that are causing the problems. In amongst Mary's "they should know these like the back of their hands" and Luis' "If you can't do these, you shouldn't be here", Richard has whispered a confession that he's not made them before. Neither have I, Rich, neither have I.

In other news: Richard wanders around the tent,
staring at the back of his hands in perplexed bewilderment.

Oh dear, and his jam isn't set well. "But," he adds optimistically, "it'll taste like jam!" He's banking on Mary's flavour comments, isn't he? Almost knocking over his mixer with a piping bag doesn't help especially.

How do they fare?

Luis: no glaze on his scones, Vic sponges "have an attempt at some piping work", and the tarts don't get a good reception.

Nancy: good feedback for all her bakes, but the scones are a little dry, and, in the cake, SHE HASN'T PIPED HER CREAM. "I think, when you're trying to impress, you do pipe," says Mary. It's like she's watching my every movement.

Richard: good scones, no piping in his cake like an animal, and his 'tarte au colon' (was Paul witty? What happened?) have curdled.

Richard seems out of the running now, coming third; Luis is second, and our Nance is first.

Also: her make-up is looking great this week, we agreed in my living room.

Richard is a little heartbreaking in his interview, about how he wishes he'd done better. Aw, Rich, we still love you.

What is the showstopper? Well, it seems to be the Windmill Challenge. It's actually a pièce montée, which incorporates sponge, choux, petits-fours, and sugarwork. Lawks. We haven't had many decorative/'scene' things this year, so it's nice that we get to finish with this sort of thing - although strange that all three bakers are basically obsessed with windmills, or towers in Poynton that look like windmills. The best moment, of course, is when Mel says that it "has to taste increds".

"I'm trying not to think that it's the final, and you could win at the moment" - could I, Luis? Could I? Why did nobody tell me? The pressure! The pressure!

Mary says "I think of the ones I've seen in 18th-century and 19th-century... pictures", She's making the age jokes too easy.

She doesn't look a day over 204.

Richard is making something about Mill Hill - which, I believe, is where Our Vicar's Wife is from. Is that right, Mum? Are you and Richard related? IS HE MY UNCLE?

He's putting every ingredient under the sun into this cake, and it's sounding fab. Although (spoilers) the colouring pencils man is being generous with the shade of green he uses in the picture.

Would that it had been that colour.

Look. I'm not saying that the BBC make all of their decisions based on my thoughts and opinions, but this series has been very light on History of Cake and, more damagingly to my recaps, light on Wow, They Live In Houses Just Like You! No recreational jogging; no 'Beca is married to her husband'. I'm sort of sad, but pleased that we end the series with Remembrance of Things Past - such as Richard wearing a pair of mighty fine specs:

We also learn the previously-unknown fact that Richard is a Builder (why weren't we told?) and get the sweetest ever interview with his wife Sarah, who says how proud she is of him. It is adorbs, and I shed a little tear.

And we cut to him saying "I am a ginger-lover - I did marry one!" Oh, you two.

Nancy - whilst saying "I'm just throwing it all in," in her perfectionist way - manages to fling flour all over the place with her mixer.

National trejz.

She's making the Moulin Rouge windmill, and tells Paul that he has to think of burlesque, at which he looks lost in reminiscence. Then Nancy adds that it's 'sinister', unnervingly.

Nancy once took a dog to Crufts, we learn:

And was also once Princess Diana, apparently.

We are told that her eight grandchildren support her - while being shown a picture which only has five children in it - and then a couple of said grandchildren say adorable things. Luis - you've got a lot to live up to in your VT.

Luis is making a mining wheel, which is basically a windmill, isn't it?

He's in a ukulele club. And he once had black hair!

All the bakers' families are lovely. I'm wondering what Colin would do if I were on this. "I don't watch it, to be honest," is what I'm imagining. This from the man who will be playing Paul H on the village stage come December. I'm angling for the role of Mary Berry, but have so far been repeatedly turned down for the part.

We see them make choux pastry which, again, isn't very tricky - this challenge has lots of easy elements, so it's the structure and the timing which is the hard thing. (I think - but am not sure - that Nancy pronounced 'choux' to sound like 'chew'. I do hope she did.)

The people outside continue to do everything in slow motion - whether that be rolling down hills, playing a guitar, or talking about Brighton - and some exiled bakers say who they think will win. Except Chetters, who misunderstands the question, and just says "Who will win?!" And guess who's back?

"This is all a bit fancy, if you ask me."

Nancy's husband has 'made' her something to curve her bake on. It's an old bit of drainpipe.

Can we stop briefly to admire how brilliant Luis' sugarwork is? Although... why is the word 'sugar' written backwards? Are you tricking us, BBC? Have you ordained that fancy camerawork is more important than artistic truthfulness?


Mel and Sue wander around in the background, gorging on people's offcuts, and everything looks to be going swimmingly for all the bakers. Their croquembouches are extraordinarily stable. But I do wonder if the luminous green icing Richard is using, and the vampire-red hat Nance is piping, are homemade... this strikes me as a shop-bought fondant interloper moment.

Sails are breaking, profiterole towers are snapping, and we don't even have time to stop and panic - that's how busy this episode is. All the tension musical instruments are playing at once, and it's getting very tense, not to say hysterical. And... time is up. They've all done brilliantly.

Here are the final bakes, which - as per - the bakers are staring at like melancholy, overprotective parents.

Appearance-wise, Luis has this in the bag, I reckon.

There are so many elements to these creations that Paul and Mary have to eat, and comment on, dozens of things. There's no real point in them commenting on whether or not people can make sponge cakes at this stage. And the critique is made interesting by the sound of marauding children in the far distance.

Nancy's sponge cake, according to Paul, "reminds me of a birthday cake I had as a child, actually". So... you once had a regular sponge cake? Memories, like the corners of my mind.

But, overall, there is nothing interesting to say about this section. Everybody has done well. They process out to the awaiting masses...

Although you can't see them, you know they are cheering,
each time someone brings out a cake.

Back in the tent, Mary and Paul do their usual recap of the previous five minutes, and - they are in agreement about the winner! Who could it be? Who will get the amazing prize of a glass cake stand that probably costs about £20 at John Lewis? At this stage, I felt pretty confident that I'd earned my monies from the office sweepstake.

Hordes of people - inexplicably wearing daisy chains in their hair - applaud as the finalists wander forward. Paul does his best to look manly while holding a bouquet of flowers. And the winner is...

It's only bloomin' Nance!

The best reaction is actually from Chetna, in the crowd, who flings her arms around in a delighted manner, shrieks "I knew it!", and is generally lovely.

Mary says that Nancy is a perfectionist, which is hilarious, since she's the living embodiment of "that'll do" - but that's why we love her so much. She is truly a great amateur baker.

She finishes the series with the wit, panache, and magnificence that she started it (remember how she was my fave in ep.1?), by 'confessing' that she's been in love with Paul all along. I so desperately hope that she gets a baking show. It could be called The Female Baker.

We are treated to the usual What Have They Been Up To Since The Bake Off? slideshow - the answer invariably being "exactly and precisely what they were up to before it" - except for this wonderful piece of news:

And... it's over! I got a triumphant "AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" text from my colleague Adam, who is £10 richer after the sweepstake pay-out, and somehow we're going to have to find something else to talk about in the office.

It's been fun, guys! Thanks for reading - and I'll be back next year :) (and I'm only a little glad to get my Thursday evenings back...)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

Are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week? All the info you need is here on Fleur Fisher Reads, and it's all very exciting. I'd thought I would read Red Sky at Morning, because I started it months ago, but instead I read Kennedy's final novel - The Forgotten Smile, published in 1961.

It has just been reissued by Vintage Books, along with a whole bunch of other Kennedy titles (some of them POD) and I read it for Shiny New Books - so I'm going to point you over there. (And I actually did finish it this week - on Sunday afternoon.) I'll just say that she does such interesting things with chronology, and it works - and her characters are brilliantly realised. Read on...

So... are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week?